PM asked with disarming directness:
“Hi Dr. Rauser,
“Wondering how you’d situate Romans 1:18-32 into this discussion? Thanks.”
The problem at first blush
Let’s put the most relevant excerpt of this passage before us:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
As with much of Paul, this text is not easy to interpret. However, it is often taken (as it is by the Triablogue Posse) as evidence for the claim that any person who assents to the proposition “There is no God” is engaged in a sinful doublethink denial of that which they really do know.
There are problems with such a simple judgment however. For instance, the atheists I know have not literally “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” This may raise a red flag and lead us to wonder whether whatever this text says, it really applies to every single atheist.
Let’s set that concern aside and note that the real force of the passage comes in verses 18-20, which seems to teach that every properly functioning person is culpable for not believing in God because the evidence for God’s existence is adequately available to all. (Or, on another view, they are culpable because they are denying their natural predisposition to believe in God in a properly basic way.)
I am not interested in denying that this may be the case sometimes. My question is whether it is necessarily always the case and whether one passage in one book in the Bible is adequate to establish this. I am going to address this question in two steps.
Hear the voice of the atheist
Back in the 1950s theologian Karl Barth had an interesting exchange with a missiologist who had spent many years in India. On Barth’s view all religion is a manifestation of rebellion against God. Thus it followed that all Hindus were, in virtue of participating in their religion, manifesting a rebellion against God. The missionary was skeptical of this and so asked Barth: “How many Hindus have you met?” Barth replied: “None.” “Then how can you know that they are all in rebellion against God?” the missiologist asked incredulously. Barth replied: “A priori.” That’s it. Barth believed a priori that all people in the various religious traditions, no matter how seemingly genuine in their religious devotion, no matter the apparent fruit manifested in their lives, must be in rebellion against God.
And so the claim goes for the judgment on atheism. “How do you know that every atheist is wicked simply in virtue of assenting to the proposition that there is no God?” And the answer comes: “A priori.”
But is this adequate? Let’s start with a brief look at Mother Teresa. Now Mother Teresa was not an atheist but she was plagued by doubts all her life, and at times she veered far into the fields of agnosticism. She wrote in her journal:
“Lord, my God, … the child of your love, and now become as the most hated one…. So many unanswered questions live within me. I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be a God, please forgive me… I am told God lives in me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
I know many people like Mother Teresa. They have lived lives that have been enormously productive of all the things Christians like to call “fruit”. They have been kind, generous, courageous, giving, and the like. But they have also struggled with faith, and it has caused some of them great existential angst. Some have found their way back to faith, but some have found themselves left in the fields of agnosticism and still others have ultimately found themselves further out in the deserts of atheism. I’ve had conversations with them. Some of them have convinced me that they wish they had faith. (In other words, they are not “anti-theists” like Chris Hitchens.) They’ve convinced themselves too. But at the same time they just can’t bring themselves to affirm the beliefs I do.
Sometimes their inability to assent to the existence of God is rooted in logical or evidential problems which I agree exist. To note one example, I think the evidence for the resurrection is good but I wish it were better (who wouldn’t?) and they find themselves hung up at this point. Or they can’t get over the apparent moral atrocities committed by God as narrated in the Bible. Or…
Other times they have experienced terrible suffering in their lives and they simply cannot believe there is a God who planned such horrors as part of his providential play from eternity. One woman I know had to contend with her three year old being diagnosed with a terminal illness and dying in front of her eyes, all the while looking up at her and saying with agonizing stoicism “It’s all right mommy.” It’s not all right. She lost her child. And she lost her faith. And then there is the case of the man who discovered his daughter had been raped dozens of times by the neighborhood Catholic priest, even under the family’s own roof. (I talk about this case in Finding God in the Shack.) Now he declares there is no God. And he does so with tears of anguish and rage. I wonder how I would respond?
Needless to say, many of these people have been burned by Christians. Angry Christians. Spiteful Christians. Self-righteous Christians. Christians who are convinced that anybody who deviates more than 3 degrees from their theological system of belief is hell-bound. The emotional scars from past hurts run deep. (To take the extreme example noted above, how do you quantify the horrifying damange of a raping pastor or priest?) It is not necessarily a rational thing to reject the existence of God because of the abysmal failure of some of his supposed servants. But we are not all cool reasoning agents in the way we think through things. And burned by faith many people want no more of it.
When I think of such people my first thought is not “How wicked you are for rebelling against the natural revelation that is right in front of you.” Rather, I feel a sadness and regret, wishing that they held the same beliefs I do because I think those beliefs are true and important. And I often feel a great anger towards the church for the way they have shamed the God they say they believe in.
So in those moments when Mother Teresa wrote “if there be a God” I don’t think she was rebelling or sinning. I think she was honestly struggling. I think many people find themselves at various places on that same continuum of belief and doubt, and it is offensive to damn the lot of them “a priori”.
But what about Romans 1?
Here’s another passage from Genesis 1 which, it seems to me, is a whole lot clearer than the above quoted passage from Romans 1. We read:
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
This passages clearly teaches (so it would seem anyways) that there was a period when every creature, human beings included, was a herbivore. And so for many years Christians were convinced “a priori” that any data from the natural world must support this conclusion.
The problem, as I noted a couple months ago, is that the evidence doesn’t support this claim at all. To note the one example to which I pointed, dinosaurs existed on earth long before human beings and many dinosaurs were carnivores. (Among the evidences I have noted: triceratops frill in fossilized T-Rex dung.)
As a result, most Christian theologians have had to revise their reading of Genesis 1:29-30 based on a posteriori data drawn from study of the natural world. I simply suggest people be open to doing the same of Romans 1 based on a posteriori data gleaned from actually getting to know atheists and finding out their manifold reasons for not assenting to the proposition that God exists. And I would ask those Christians to pay special attention to the extent to which unbelief is a direct result of the often abysmal witness of the church.